I had the opportunity to work with a very skilled martial artist last weekend. Yes he had decades of training, all the right credentials... but that really doesn't mean anything. What mattered is the way he felt- his structure and movement- when we played. He was good. Not many people can hold structure while moving. In the course of a few minutes I had finger locks fail, very reliable spine/face moves get slipped and was taken off balance (taken down if not for a convenient wall) in a more perfect and more controlled way than I have experienced in a couple of years.
Very nice, but like everyone there were glitches too. You could feel his energy as he tried to think of the right thing; watch comfort level rise or fall based on interpretation instead of damage and control; feel the separation of mindsets between flow and staccato bursts.
This is hard to put into words. As skilled as he was, he processed things through a filter. (We all do- don't get smug) He wanted to do the 'right' thing, apply his skill efficiently. That had two effects- sometimes he would focus on moving right instead of moving well, he would try to maintain a sticky-hands control while striking instead of just unloading. The second, and the probable basis of the subtle difference between someone who fights as a hobby and someone who fights professionally is that he tried to win, not to end it. At any moment I could have frozen the action and asked: "If you had to kill me right now, right this second, how would you do it?" He would have an answer, he had the skill... but it would not be what he was actually doing. What he was actually doing was what he had trained.
So here's another difference: It is almost true that you fight the way you train, but never quite. Simply in a real fight you want it over and the threat incapable of harming you. In training, you want the experience without the uke ever actually being injured. You need to train with the same people next class.
The good professionals, this is never far from their minds. They don't use the table, maybe, but they know it is there...
And they are always cataloging, remembering, probing: I know some of what this guy likes, what he avoids even when it isn't tactically necessary to do so; the opportunities that are invisible to him; what patterns he will fall into as familiar ground; what patterns will make him cautious; what patterns will take him a second to interpret... It's just a way to think. Fighting minds is separate from fighting bodies and even separate from fighting skills.
Another difference- everything in the last paragraph was tactical skill, a tactical game. Time to make those judgments almost never exists in the real thing. It becomes a habit, but when it is ON, it is OVER, with those niceties of thought and interpretation just things that the broken amateur was maybe planning on doing.
Yet another difference- the amateur always has a personal stake. 'This is about me'. The questions are there- am I good enough? Can I win? Will I ever get laid if I lose? Bullshit masculinity issues and esteem crowding in, messing with a brain that needs to get a job done. Getting over this (and it is hard: personal violence pushes a huge amount of issues to the fore) frees up a great deal of brain power. The hobbiest wonders if he can beat the reigning champion. The professional just has to decide how.
So here is the question- on most of the levels we played at, I believe that my friend showed superior skill. My advantages were mental and attitudinal. Can this be taught separately? Can I graft the professional experience, the way I think, onto his skill set? Wouldn't that be cool.